Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.

How Serious is the Skynet Threat?

You know there’s a new Terminator movie coming…right? How vulnerable are we to Skynet and the threat of dangerous, killer robots? I don’t mean the characters in a movie. I mean us. In real life?

Jeff Bezos says we are in a golden age of AI.[1] Who are we to disagree with him? His company Amazon are using cool AI techniques to get orders placed, processed, packed and delivered to us more quickly than ever before. It’s not just Amazon. Netflix use AI techniques to improve video quality while we binge our telly, and Uber use AI techniques to find a driver quickly. Actually…our lives are increasingly affected by AI. And – we are always looking forward to the next new and cool application of AI that brings us our next dopamine hit!

But are we actually at risk from the rise of the machines? Some people think so. The Way of the Future Church is about respectfully handing control of the planet from “people to people + machines.”[2] Clearly these people think people are CURRENTLY in control of the planet. Wow. The average natural disaster or unexpected occurrence in life might suggest otherwise.

I studied Computer Science as an undergraduate, and I’ve worked in embedded software as a developer and applications engineer for thirty years. I’ve loved the stories about sentient machines, but I’ve never thought we were at risk of ever seeing one. I love the AI techniques that make life easier for us. But I’ve never expected machines to take over from the people coding their algorithms. Am I right to think so?

Bob Marks, Director of Walter Bradley Institute and Distinguished Professor of Computer Engineering at Baylor University would agree with me. He defines AI as “anything we can do that is gee whiz with a computer.”[3] Are there things that a human can do that AI cannot? Absolutely. AI is a technology that is coded for by humans, and there are vitally important characteristics of humans that AI cannot share.

 

1 – Humans are Creative, AI Isn’t

In order to write code, the engineer must engage his creativity. The human experiences qualia, they are conscious as they design the latest clever algorithm. But creativity is not a trait that is codable for.

All computers conform to the Church-Turing thesis. This effectively means that computers today cannot do any more than they could do in the 1930s. What they CAN do…is do the same thing many billions of times faster than before. Computers execute pre-coded algorithms increasingly quickly. That is all.

For Skynet to rise, AI must be capable of coding smarter AIs, which in turn code smarter AIs. Only humans are creative in this way. AI isn’t.

But couldn’t AI become creative?

 

 

2 – What is Computer Creativity?

Marks says computers can’t become creative, and he appeals to the Lovelace test to explain why.[4]

If a computer program responds with an output that cannot be explained by the original actions of the computer programmer, then we can say the computer is displaying creativity. Studies have shown that computer programs can make surprising actions, but they always stick to the bounds of their programming. They don’t creatively develop new capabilities in the course of their operation. Computers follow the algorithms they have been coded to follow. You cannot code for creativity or consciousness.

 

3 – But What About Advanced Deep Learning, Neural Networks?

It sounds pretty short sighted to say AI can never be creative. Or is it?

We need move beyond fun fantasy and start to understand what it is the computers can and cannot do. I knew someone once who called computers “very fast idiots.” The most advanced deep learning neural networks that are being developed today are an example of his judgement.

By allowing a deep learning network to go over the game of GO again…and again…and again, it can get to the point of being able to soundly beat the GO world champion. Google’s AlphaGo did this convincingly, soundly winning a three match series.[5] But does that mean that AlphaGo is smarter than the human its playing? No – it means AlphaGo can play Go better than the human. That is all.

Think about it this way.

AlphaGo made surprising moves when playing Go…and these moves allowed it to win the matches. So – it was just doing what it was coded – and trained – to do. But is AlphaGo truly creative? If it asked for a drink, or made an insightful observation about its opponent’s financial situation between moves – these would be instances of AI creativity. But AlphaGo cannot do this.

Neural networks are not creative. They are good at dealing with specific tasks that display high levels of ergodicity. It’s trained to do a very specific task – to play Go. Nothing else.

For example, studies have been done around training them to recognise tanks. But you would never use them on a real battlefield. Why? Bob Marks explains that it turns out the networks spent more cycles learning about the landscape behind the tank than the tank itself! Also, the use is so very specific – that you could not trust it in constantly changing battlefield conditions. The computer algorithm is not conscious and it cannot explain what it is doing. Rather – it is following very specific, repeatable rules. When the situation changes and no longer matches the conditions trained for, the computer lacks any creativity to deal with this situation. Battlefields are all about changing situations! Neural networks would be instantly vulnerable to making bad decisions.

So much for Terminators.

 

4 – What About Quantum Computing?

These computers also obey the Church-Turing thesis. There’s no magic leap into conscious AI here.

 

5 – Will I Lose My Job?

Marks thinks this is possible for some people. But he also thinks this will give humans increased time to enjoy life and do more creative jobs that AIs are incapable of doing.

 

Conclusion

In summary, Marks reasonably concludes that while AIs will improve the quality of our lives, they will not pose any threat to us. Unless, of course, someone applies one of these dumb, non-creative machines in inappropriate ways! But then there’s nothing new there. It’s not Skynet that threatens us…its actually other people and ourselves.

 

 

[1] Jeff Bezos is Launching…, The Verge, updated Jan 17th, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/17/18186481/amazon-remars-jeff-bezos-conference-ai-machine-learning-robotics-space.

[2] Way of the Future Church, http://www.wayofthefuture.church/.

[3] Computer Engineer Bob Marks Discusses the Perils and Promise of AI, Discovery Institute, September 4th, 2019, https://www.discovery.org/multimedia/audio/2019/09/computer-engineer-bob-marks-discusses-the-perils-and-promise-of-ai/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] AlphaGo Takes the series title, Wired, Thursday 25th May, 2017, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepmind-go-alphago-china-may-2017.

Challenging Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies do happen. Lots of people think they are common. 71% of Americans think the government are hiding the truth about UFO’s, 9/11 was an inside job, and the Apollo moon landings (or at least the first one) was a hoax. But how likely are these conspiracy theories? And what logical tools can we use to explore them?

First – here’s a real conspiracy. On June 17th 1972, burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. They were discovered to be part of a small group connected to President Nixon’s re-election campaign, seeking to wiretap phones and steal documents.[1] Conspiracies are about small groups of people attempting something immoral. Watergate failed because the group was exposed.

So – what about UFOs and the Apollo moon landings?

Ken Samples points to five questions we can ask of these claims to test the logical basis of the conspiracy claim.[2] These logical tools reveal the majority of conspiracy theories to be false.

1 – Does the theory hold together?

Does it have a solid foundation or is it contradictory? For example, think about the claim that aliens are visiting the planet. Given the vast distances that would have to be travelled, and the physical laws that would have to be overturned in order to achieve this, the theory starts to look contradictory. The facts required for the UFO government conspiracy don’t hold together.

 

2 – Does the theory comport with the facts?

Good theories don’t only fit with all the facts, they also tie them all together. The Watergate burglars were where they should not be, with wire tapping equipment, and one of them had the telephone number of Nixon’s government office. These are simply facts. But the theory that they are conspiring to steal information they should not lawfully have – ties these facts together.

A bad theory will reject some of the facts because they are inconvenient to the theory. For example, people who try to claim that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen during WW2 have to reject the data available from Jewish, Axis and Allied sources. They may mount a theory, but they will have to hide certain facts that the theory does not comport with.

 

3 – Does the theory avoid unwarranted assumptions?

Often when you start to investigate a bad theory, people make unwarranted claims to make the theory stand. For example, consider the claim that the Apollo moon landing was faked. The documented evidence shows that 400, 000 people were employed on Apollo and over 20,000 industrial firms and Universities were active in the enterprise. It was a massive undertaking in financial terms and man hours. It was also massive in the sheer number of people that had to be involved to make it happen.

If we are to claim that the astronauts did not reach the moon, then we have to make the assumption that all these people, or at least a significant proportion of them, were willing to keep this secret. But not just that, but they were all able to KEEP this secret in the face of jubilation around the world, and fifty years of celebrations. This starts to sound like an unwarranted assumption. After all, it would only take one person to crack … and the game would be up! Yet in fifty years, there has been no whisper of falsification by those actually involved. Just by people with a conspiracy axe to grind.

 

4 – How well does the theory handle counter evidence?

When counter evidence comes to light, how well does the conspiracy theory deal with this? For example, on the moon landing, how does the hoax theory cope with counter evidence like:

  • the photographic evidence from American and Chinese satellites showing the Apollo equipment remaining on the landing sites.
  • the bouncing of lasers off of instrumentation on the moon.
  • moon rocks.

 

5 – Is the theory open to falsification? If so, how?

Can a theory be proven false under certain circumstances? Or is it simply impossible to falsify it? Conspiracy theories tend NOT to be open to falsification. There is always another unwarranted assumption that stops the process of falsification.

However – a good theory IS open to falsification. This is one of the reasons that a good theory has rational weight. For example, if there was no connection between the Nixon government and the Watergate burglars, the conspiracy theory could have been quickly falsified.

 

 

Conclusion

It’s fun to kick conspiracy theories around. But when we put them through these logical filters – most of them drop out as false.

So – the next question is – what happens when we expose the theory that Jesus rose from the dead – to these logical tools? Well – the theory comes out to be a sound one. I’ll talk about that next.

[1] Watergate Scandal, History, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/1970s/watergate.

[2] Logically Questioning Strange Ideas and Controversial Theories, Reasons to Believe, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2017/07/11/logically-questioning-strange-ideas-and-controversial-theories.

Couldn’t God Create a World Where Evil Doesn’t Exist?

If there IS a God, then why didn’t he create a world where there is no evil?

Well – if you are willing to give up free will, then anything is possible. If God took away our ability to exercise free will, then I’m sure evil would stop in the world. But the question is – would you want to lose your ability to exercise your free will?

Libertarian free will” – this is how I understand the universe. In other words, reality is not determined. I can make choices, and I have free will to exercise this choice. This assumption underpins everything in our lives.

Some people will disagree, saying, “I only think I have free will. But really, reality is determined.” They might point to different determining factors. For example, biology, the laws of physics, even God. This view is called Compatibilism. But Compatibilism has many problems. I don’t think it allows us to make sense of how we live our lives. And it certainly undermines my ability to understand what the Bible is saying.

Problem 1 – Compatibilism and Life

We live our lives dealing with people, and organizations, asserting power upon us. Perhaps they demand us to pay our taxes, or they expect us to take out the bins at home. Also, we try to exert our power on other people to make them do what we want them to do.

The existence of power in the world is a problem for the Compatibilist.

For example:

  1. If Compatibilism is true, then all events are necessitated (whether I realise that or not).
  2. If all events are necessitated, then there are no powers.
  3. Free will consists in the exercise of an agent’s powers.
  4. The world is full of agents exercising power.
  5. Therefore these agents have free will.[1]

Compatibilism doesn’t square with how the world works. Libertarianism, on the other hand, does.

 

Problem 2 – Compatibilism and the Bible

The Bible is full of statements like, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses … stop sinning.”[2] If I don’t actually have the free will to choose how to behave, then it is meaningless for the Bible to challenge my behaviour. Because my behaviour is necessary.

Yet – I do actually have free will. This is evident from the opening story in Genesis when Adam and Eve chose to assert their free wills against God. Without this understanding, I simply cannot understand what the Bible is saying. It is saying – “I’m a free being, and I must use my free will to love and follow a good and just God in my life.”

 

Libertarian Free Will and Evil

So – back to the first question. If there IS a God, then why didn’t he create a world where there is no evil?

For a start, evil’s not a thing. Rather, evil is “a corruption of the good, and evil arises from the misuse of the will.”[3] So disease and man’s inhumanity to man are two evils. They are a corruption of what is good, and misuse of personal freedom.

God wants us to be able to freely exercise our God given, libertarian free will. He made us this way. But because we use our free will to hurt other people, we live in a world where evil exists.

So – couldn’t God take away our free will? Well – would we want to live lives without any free will? Clay Jones points out that, virtually every science fiction story touches upon the issues around free will.[4] Maybe its Blade Runner, where replicants are seeking to free themselves from oppressive human beings. They want freedom … “and more life.” Maybe it’s Star Trek, and the Borg are seeking to take away our uniqueness and distinctiveness. They want us to join the collective and become just another drone. No – every fibre of being aboard the Enterprise fights against that notion. We are free beings. And the audience replies – amen! Human beings believe they are free, and they assert their power to maintain that freedom.

 

God Cannot Make a Free World Where there Is No Evil

So – in the final analysis, it turns out that there are some things God cannot do. He cannot create a square circle, and he cannot create a world full of free beings like us where there is not a possibility of evil.

If you want a world without evil, then welcome to the Borg collective. Which ironically, would be the ultimate evil for free people like us…

 

[1] Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, A new argument against compatibilism, Oxford Academic, accessed 22nd August, 2019, https://academic.oup.com/analysis/article-abstract/74/1/20/301393?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:33, NIV.

[3] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, (Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 20.

[4] Clay Jones, Sci-Fi, Free Will and the Problem of Evil, Clay Jones, accessed 22nd August, 2019, https://www.clayjones.net/2015/07/sci-fi-free-will-and-the-problem-of-evil/.

Doing the Right Thing

Jack Malik wakes up, and he doesn’t realise it yet, but the Beatles never existed as a band and never changed the world with their music. If you’ve not seen the movie Yesterday … I’m going to spoil part of the plot for you below. If I were you…I’d watch the movie before reading this.

 

Still here?

 

Ok.

 

I was really struck by the undercurrents in this movie. Part of the genius is … they don’t state it explicitly till later on, you just see it developing on Jack’s face as he decides to bring Beatles music he recalls, to a world that has never heard it. Jack spends much of the movie with an expression of panic on his face. He’s viewed as a musical genius, able to cook up a world changing song in 10 minutes. Of course, he’s doing nothing of the sort. He’s just remembering music composed by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison many years ago and reproducing it. No-one else knows that.

 

Or – almost no-one knows that.

 

Suddenly we discover that two other people in the world – like Jack – remember who the Beatles were! Jack’s NOT alone in his memory of them after all. And these people watch as Jack is propelled to super stardom. The inevitable consequences loom. And finally – these individuals confront Jack – and tell him that they know what he is doing. That he’s not the original composer. Jack’s face says it all – “I’m a fraud, I’ve been found out, I’m finished.”

 

But what happens next is truly special. They basically say to him, “Jack. Thank you. We aren’t musicians. We can’t sing. But we love those old songs. The world is a better place with these songs in it. And you are making this happen. Your secret is safe with us, and we are just thankful that you have the courage to do this.”

Rather than judgement – Jack receives appreciation and thanks.

 

Here’s what hits me about this. Before the conversation with these people, Jack faced a moral crisis. Should I come clean and tell the truth? That I didn’t write these songs? After his conversation with his new friends, he realises what service he is providing to the world, and to those folks who know who the Beatles were. He has every reason to feel justified in keeping quiet about the source of these songs and carrying on regardless.

But he can’t.

Even though he has every reason to carry on his present course…and be the star, he decides not to. Not because he can’t face stardom (tho it has its downsides). Its also because – he realises he has to tell the truth. He cannot lie about what he is doing any more.

C S Lewis said, when someone makes a moral judgement (like Jack saying to himself ‘I ought to tell the truth’), “they think they are saying something … true, about the nature of the proposed action … not merely about their own feelings.”[1] There is something objectively real about the urge pressing on us to act truthfully. And when we act untruthfully, we find ourselves justifying our behaviour to ourselves…as Jack does. But if we don’t believe that decent behaviour is objectively right and we ought to follow this Moral Law, “why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[2]

 

If there is no one who we are ultimately responsible to, why are we built with this moral core, this need to behave morally? Social programming and evolutionary development of society only gets you so far. We don’t feel beholden to abstract principles. No … we are guilty before a person. Jack is caught in the headlights like a frightened rabbit. Why? What is that about?

 

“Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”[3] Matter and objects cannot make us guilty, it takes a person to achieve that. A young child drawing on the kitchen wall will not receive punishment from the kitchen table. But when his mother sees what’s he’s done, then he’d better watch out!

 

Surely … our moral obligation points to One who we are ultimately accountable to … a person before whom we are ultimately guilty. A God who is willing and able to communicate, and very interested in right conduct and fair play.[4] It’s before his gaze that I am ultimately guilty.

 

And yet … however real my guilt, a surprise awaits for anyone who faces him. Like’s Jack’s experience in the movie, the outcome is not what we expect. We don’t need to receive judgement. Instead, we can receive acceptance, love and affirmation in spite of it all.

[1] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1977), 36.

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 2009), 8.

[3] Lewis, Mere, 23.

[4] Lewis, Mere, 30.

Where Our Longings Lead Us

I was nine, and my Dad bought us tickets to see the new movie that was rocking the world. He was even taking us to the grand Glasgow Odeon…our biggest local cinema in 1977.

I couldn’t wait to see Star Wars. There was just one movie called Star Wars, back then. And when the big yellow words crawled across the giant screen in front of my young eyes…something happened. A longing was birthed within me … I touched a desire for something greater, something more. That sense has stayed with me through my life and I’ve recaptured it from time to time. That desire … that nothing in this real world ever seems close to satisfying.

C S Lewis realised something about the desires I’m talking about:

“The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing … Do what we will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.”[1]

It seems this deep desire is sparked within us by different things. Maybe nature, science or the arts. But it points towards something else. And it’s never ultimately satisfied in this life.

French existentialist and atheist Jean-Paul Sartre said, “There comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare [and Star Wars], even of Beethoven, ‘Is that all there is?’” Okay … I added Star Wars into the Sartre quote.

That deep longing, was used by C S Lewis to construct an argument pointing us from the thing that sparked our desire … towards God.

 

1 – Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

2 – There exists in us a desire which nothing in time, or on earth, no creature can satisfy.

3 – Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy it.[2]

 

We long for food. Well, there are many sources of nourishment available to us to eat and drink. We long for relationships and intimacy. Well, there are people with which to relate. We have a deep desire that nothing in life can satisfy… Well. If we are plagued by longings in our lives that nothing in this life seems to satisfy, then surely we were made for another world?[3]

 

My desire points me ultimately towards the God who created me who is able to satisfy me.

 

Andy Bannister observes a number of responses to C S Lewis’s argument from desire.[4]

1 – Just because you desire something does not mean it exists.

I would love to fly in the Millenium Falcon. But that doesn’t mean it’s real. (except in Disney Land, right?)

Yet this is a confusion. That’s not what C S Lewis is talking about. He’s referring to nature, innate desires that are universal. They are within all of us, and bubble up within everyone, whatever our culture.

2 – We don’t always get what we want.

But that’s not the point. I may be hungry but my fridge is empty and the shops are shut. Nevertheless, me being hungry points to the existence of food that will satisfy my hunger.

3 – I’m happy as I am think you. I need nothing, certainly not God.

Is this Pollyanna atheism, an unwillingness to face the consequences of unbelief? Kreeft has gone further, suggesting this response indicates that this needs “something more like an exorcism than a refutation.”[5]

Many atheists have been more honest or self-aware. Bertrand Russell has said:

“The centre of me is always and eternally in terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains.”[6]

 

 

 

I think Russel speaks genuinely and honestly out of despair. And I think C S Lewis speaks to those same unfulfilled desires from a position of positivity and hope and purpose. We do not need to live our lives beating back the same of growing hopelessness. Hope is real, and is actually a Person. Our longings form part of the evidence that He exists and can be known by us.

 

 

[1] C S Lewis, The Weight of Glory (1949; report., New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 30.

[2] Andy Bannister, “Old Truths from Oxford C S Lewis and the New Atheists,” C S Lewis Discipleship of Heart and Mind, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/Old_Truths_from_Oxford_CS_Lewis_and_the_New_Atheists.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London:@ William Collins, 2015), 137

[4] Bannister, “Old Truths”.

[5] Peter Kreeft, Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 225.

[6] Nicholas Griffin, eh., The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 2: The Public Years (London: Routeledge, 2001), 85.

 

Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash

How Rational Is It to Ponder God’s Existence?

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Do your ever wonder whether God exists? Maybe you are tempted to say it just makes no sense to think that way. Do we really leave logic behind when we mount an argument that points to God’s existence?

Sure, it’s possible to propose an illogical argument involving God. The plot of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which suggested God might live in the centre of the galaxy, is a great example! Hey – as a nerd, I think Star Trek The Motion Picture is a much better treatise on faith and the personal spiritual journey.

Leaving Star Trek aside, in this blog, I’m going to argue that it is possible to mount a logical argument for the existence of God. Why? Because:

  1. Humanity has received the Laws of Logic and we use them in our thoughts and disciplines. They aren’t invented by us.
  2. The idea that the universe has a first cause is consistent with the Laws of Logic.
  3. Mounting an argument for God’s existence is not only logical, it leads to the possibility of renewed hope in our personal lives.

 

 

FIRST – what do I mean by the Laws of Logic and their impact on humanity?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental laws guiding logical human (and Vulcan) thought.

1 – the Principle of Non-Contradiction.

For all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true. In other words, if I believe that I am about to pick up a hamburger, I cannot therefore be about to take a bite out of a flying saucer. It is a hamburger.

2 – the Principle of Excluded Middle.

Either Socrates is mortal, or it is not the case that Socrates is mortal. The middle position, that Socrates is neither mortal or not-mortal, is excluded by the Laws of Logic.

3 – the Principle of Identity.

A thing is identical with itself.

Where do the Laws of Logic come from? Well, that’s a tough question to think about because they are a-priori to human thought. They come before anything that the human mind writes or says. It seems unnecessary to even consider these laws as they seem so basic and obvious to us. They come packaged as part of our finely ordered universe.

What’s more, we don’t actually have the tools to try to work out whether the laws are true and valid, because all our approaches presuppose them. More scientific discoveries won’t help us here. Why?  Bonnette opines, “No one can actually doubt or deny the principle of non-contradiction – for the very act of denying or doubting presupposes its validity. To say, ‘I deny,’ is to affirm that you deny and to deny that you affirm, both of which need the Principle of Non-Contradiction for their very intelligibility.”[1]

So, we have to simply receive these logical laws and apply them if we are going to make any sense as we think and communicate. We didn’t invent them, we naturally connect to them and use them as we reason and interact.

 

SECOND – a first cause of the universe is completely consistent with the Logical Laws we must appeal to

What do I mean? Well, let’s look at a logical argument for the existence of God as the first cause of the universe, or multi-verse (it’s a similar argument for both). The Kalam Cosmological argument says this:

1 – Everything that BEGINS to exist has a cause.

This is one of those obvious statements. It’s not particularly controversial because it’s based on our everyday experience and scientific understanding of the universe. Things don’t pop into existence unexpectedly in our experience.

2 – The universe began to exist.

We know this from scientific methodologies that validate the theory of the big bang. For example,  the measurement of background radiation in the cosmos and the red shift of the galaxies we observe from earth. Everything is in motion from a single point where space, time and matter came into existence billions of years ago.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause. 

This follows logically from the first two premises. If they are both true, then this is a logical conclusion.

And – we can go further and suggest some attributes of this first cause. It must be timeless and immaterial. It must itself be uncaused, and incredibly powerful. Also, it must be personal. Why? Because we are conscious beings who live in the universe. That being the case, the first cause must also be conscious. The effect cannot be greater than the cause. Further, it must have taken will and choice to cause the universe. It can’t have been the result of physical cause and effect, because there was no cause and no effect. These notions presuppose physical laws that themselves came into being at the creation of the universe as we know it. No, it is reasonable to assume the universe has a personal cause.

The Kalam is only one of a number of logical arguments that point to the existence of a God. To refute this argument, you have to show that one or either of the premises are invalid, or that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

 

THIRD – okay the argument is logical, but so what?

We’ve seen that not only do we receive the Laws of Logic, but they guide our considerations about the idea that God exists as a first cause of the universe. He created everything ex nihilo, from nothing at all. There was nothing … then the big bang … and space-time began. The Laws of Logic don’t tell us much about what this God is like. For that, we have to look elsewhere. But they do get us started in a proper and rational way.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with the idea that a rational argument can contain the idea of God. If one begins by discounting God altogether, taking the Naturalist philosophical position, then the idea of a God makes no sense because all that exists is found within the bounds of the universe. There is no supernatural, just natural. To the Naturalist, an argument like the Kalam may follow logically, but it probably makes no sense to them based on their presuppositions.

The problem with allowing our presuppositions to dictate our thinking here is – it leaves us with having to settle without an explanation. Our thinking is essentially constrained to the confines of the universe itself, we are therefore unable to consider a cause of it. This seems very unsatisfying.

Even so, scientists have formed naturalistic theories about the creation of the universe that do not require a personal first cause. Unfortunately, they also re-define the “nothing” that the universe must logically have been created from. The late Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Mlodinow, state in their naturalistic model that, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”[2] But what do they mean by “nothing?” Craig explains. “The nothingness … is not really nothingness after all but is space filled with vacuum energy….’nothing’ in their vocabulary does not have the traditional meaning ‘nonbeing’ but rather means ‘the quantum vacuum’…Hawking and Mlodinow have avoided the tough question by equivocation.”[3]

Yet the Theist has no such problems facing the tough issues around the creation of the universe. The universe appeared from actual nothing, and the cause of its appearing was a first cause whose properties sound very much like the traditional description of God.

How rational is it to ponder God’s existence? Well – it depends on your argument! But – it can be completely rational.

 

FOURTH – so where’s the hope?

The idea of God isn’t just a logical proposition. It is also a source of much hope and real encouragement to us right now. Why? Well, surely if God willed a finely crafted, logical universe into existence then he had a purpose in doing so? We are alive now, and we are considering these issues together. There must therefore be a purpose in our own personal existence? The universe was created for a purpose, and so were we. There’s a good reason why we are here, and part of the result of getting to know that God, is learning more about the purposes he has for us in his good creation.

If the creation is very good…on what basis must we assume God’s purposes for our lives are any less good?

 

 

[1]Dennis Bonnette, The Principle of Non-Contradiction’s Incredible Implications, Strange Notions The Digital Areopagus – Reason, Faith, Dialogue, https://strangenotions.com/the-principle-of-non-contradictions-incredible-implications/?fbclid=IwAR10f1xjwEYpvNKckkHwzbSk1XQR2-C0agVg5QdNAwShTkjMlF0q_wy49cQ

[2] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design quoted in The Grand Design Truth or Fiction, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/science-theology/the-grand-design-truth-or-fiction/.

[3] William Lane Craig, The Grand Design Truth or Fiction, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/science-theology/the-grand-design-truth-or-fiction/.

 

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Cleo – a Hero for Our Times

roma

Alfonso Cauron’s latest movie has received a limited theatrical release, which sounds like a tragedy given the quality of his past output. Yet it has also been streaming on Netflix since December, so it’s available pretty much everywhere. Cauron is telling a fictional story through a period of history he himself knows. He grew up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and he chooses to set his story here in painstaking historical detail. His vivid  backdrop is a period of great Mexican societal unrest following government atrocities of the 1960s and early 70s.

The themes of racism and inequality bubble beneath the surface of this story. Cleo is from an indigenous family who comes to the city to work as a maid for a wealthy white family. As her story unfolds we see that, even though she serves this family, she is the same as them. Even though she is financially poor, the problems in her life mirror those in their wealthy life.

As you let Roma wash over you…I think the movie is saying that life in all its vividness and grounded-ness is a real leveller. Everyone goes through similar experiences. Loss and suffering is no respecter of persons. We all hit it at some point. Including the experience of regret, of guilt.

A lot has been written about Cauron’s technical prowess that’s visible in Roma. But what struck me (I’m not a filmmaker) was the honesty displayed in his movie. He is taking a long hard look at human nature in all of its depth, and unflinchingly showing it on the screen. From the selfishness of Cleo’s partner to the selflessness of Cleo herself, I was left feeling that I’d really experienced life as the credits finally rolled. Cauron had almost given me the unique experience of actually living someone else’s life…and feeling what she felt and learning what she learned. What a gift!!

There is something about Cleo’s character that draws you. I think it might show some important aspects of humanity…of living as we are supposed to live. Imperfect yes…but yet it comes through her life and choices. Thru Cleo’s eyes, we are a person of humility, who values those around us and persists in thinking the best of them…even when they mistreat us. Of doggedly carrying on, even when the odds are stacked against us and we’ve got many reasons to give up and try something else. And – even though society around her is collapsing into violence – Cleo continues prioritising the important people in her life. She isn’t distracted from knowing what the right thing is…and continuing to do it.

I think the feel and the smell of Roma stays with you afterwards…because in many ways we’re struck by Cleo as an inspiring role model…a hero for our troubled times. She isn’t presented with all the flash and pizzazz served up by the next Marvel superhero film. She’s not Captain America. But – in a sense – she’s a real hero. The person we would want to be if we faced those sorts of troubles.

The thing is…we are facing these sorts of troubles today. Culture is under attack right now. In Britain…Brexit is threatening to drag us down into a whirlpool of dread and uncertainty. And across the pond…the horror of US Government shutdown and the resulting economic deprivation…all for the sake of a questionable (un) Presidential project…leaves you wondering whether anyone really cares selflessly about anyone anymore? It leaves you feeling like everyone is just on a short fuse…ready and willing to explode in exasperated outrage any minute.

Our world needs people who nevertheless… prioritise the feelings and needs of others. Even though they are in the minority as they do so.

In Roma, this is what Cleo is doing. I think she consciously or unconsciously tries to live out the call of Jesus Christ to “do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”[1] We see it in her patience with her abusers, and her loyalty to her suffering family.  There’s a clear attractiveness to living life this way. It’s a principle and philosophy which underpins God’s idea of what positive and healthy relationships could be like. Cleo shows us that…living this is not a soft option. Its not easy to live this way in the midst of a society that is embattled, angry and just doesn’t value you that way.

And yet…the results of persisting in living this way are so valuable. It results in a life of belonging, of family, and of facing the future together with those who love you. If our society is going to survive…it will do so in this way. So…we need to start living this way. Doing the right thing anyway, even though so many don’t. Live like Cleo, do to others as you’d like them to do to you.

 

[1] Matthew 7:12, NLT.

Bird Box and Walking by Faith Not Sight

Bird Box

Bird Box has launched a new meaning for “canary in a coal mine” into pop culture. In this story, bird’s tweet whenever the (apparently) invisible monsters are around…they don’t die before we do, rather they tell us “Don’t look….don’t look! Or you WILL die.”

There were points in this movie where I wanted to close my eyes. It’s deeply unsettling at times. The idea that, unless one is prepared to live one’s life blinded, is horrifying on all sorts of levels that are wonderfully explored in Bird Box. Trying to keep two little ones safe while riding the rapids blindfolded – now that’s an excuse for extreme anxiety right there.

People have spent time this Christmas trying to work out whether the underlying premise of Bird Box is a metaphor for some important aspect of modern life? Perhaps it’s all about the fear of becoming a parent? Well, having been a parent for 22 years, I can say that I’d sure hate to have done it blindfolded. Maybe instead, the metaphor is a warning against social media and the way people behave on it? Not sure about that one. It’s what I DO see on twitter that worries me, not what I don’t see.

But one idea that struck me hard was the notion that Bird Box is about religion, that people take a blind leap of faith to become “religious.” While I won’t speak on behalf of “religions,” I will speak on behalf of Christianity. And – at first glance – the Bible does seem to say something about “walking by faith and not sight.”

“Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1, NLT)

“For we live by believing, and not by seeing.” (2 Corinthians 5:7, NLT)

So the question is – does Christianity require its adherents to limit our vision, and to close our eyes to the things in front of everyone else’s noses. That sounds crazy…like a real tragedy…people holding themselves back for no good reason. Is Christianity the intellectual equivalent of donning a blindfold and stupidly choosing to stumble through life like “the Bird Box lady” (twitter’s name for Sandra Bullock)? After all…the monsters aren’t real…right?

No – Christianity’s not like this caricature suggests. And I’ll give you three reasons why I say that (there are many more).

1 – Christianity is about looking reality square in the face, not looking away or hiding from it.

The reality is that people are capable of evil things, and our niceness turns out to be a thin veneer of morality. One of my professors, Clay Jones, comments that having studied genocides down through human history, “genocide is what the average person does…we are all born Auschwitz enabled.”[1] If you want an example of this, the leading cause of premature death in the world in 2018 was abortion. I think it strains credulity to suggest all those abortions were done on medical grounds.

“More than 41 million children [were] killed before birth…8.2 million people died from cancer…5 million from smoking…1.7 million died of HIV/AIDS.”[2]

Christianity is about unmasking this sort of reality and saying it as it is. All of us are capable of great things, selfless things…but also evil things. The monsters in the real story turn out to be us. And Christianity recognises this. Suffering is real, and people like you and me cause it.

2 – Christianity is not about wearing a blindfold. It is about wisely recognising the limitations of my sight.

Christianity is not about limiting one’s vision. Its about facing reality. But it’s also about understanding faith in the right way. Faith is not “the blind embrace of ideas despite an absence of evidence or proof,” rather faith is about exercising “confidence, trust and reliance”[3] in the right person.

Because Christian faith is about trust and reliance, it is therefore requires us to have proper reasons, evidence and knowledge on which to base or trust and reliance.

I choose to trust the God who has revealed himself to me because on my own, I am severely limited in my abilities and my understanding of what is going on in the world, and even in my own life. It’s not that I have no vision or understanding at all, its just that I’m limited in what I can know. So, I choose therefore to trust the one who’s got the big picture in full view – God.

If you think about it, faith therefore requires reason and evidence, and it results in a widening of our confidence not a restriction of it.

3 – Christian faith is about using all our faculties to live life based on what we can see and know, while leaving the mysterious hidden stuff in God’s capable hands.

Because I’m just a limited human being, there is bound to be stuff that I simply do not know and this bothers me.

I want to know that my kids and grand-kids are going to grow up happy, healthy, successful and fulfilled. But there’s no guarantee. I can do all I can do to bring that about…but…I’m limited. I want to know that I’m healthy and, as I look after myself, I’m going to be free of disease and sickness. But – there are no guarantees.

Now – I can choose to live my life doing my best, burying my head in work and relationships and business (therefore limiting my attention to just those things)….which is not wrong. But I would suggest that an even better way of living is giving myself to all these important things while also rooting myself in my trust, confidence, reliance….or faith in God. Trusting that however it turns out…he has the best for me. This is not to say everything in my life will turn out as I want it to. It does mean that I don’t have to fret and worry about this, because ultimately God’s in control and it’ll turn out as he wants it to.

The truth is…often I am confused and scared and anxious about life. And I feel inside like “the Bird Box lady”. And yet, I also know something else to be true.

“The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you.” Deuteronomy 33:27, NLT.

[1] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 60, 62.

[2] Thomas D. Williams, Abortion Leading Cause of Death in 2018 with 41 Million Killed, Breitbart, http://www.breitbart.com/health/2018/12/31/abortion-leading-cause-of-death-in-2018-with-41-million-killed/.

[3] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008), 16, 17.

Embracing “Where the Lost Things Go”

mary poppins

During her promotional tour for Mary Poppins Returns, I heard Emily Blunt say that, at the start of filming principal photography, Rob Marshall held his actors back from visiting the Cherry Tree Lane set. His intention was to wait until the conditions were just right, the lighting and the set build was complete, and the Mary Poppins score was playing over the studio sound system. Only then were the actors allowed to take their first steps back into the fictional world they were going to bring back to life for us. She remembered the emotional experience this was for the wonderful Dick Van Dyke.

I feel the filmmakers have beautifully succeeded in capturing the tone and the voice of the original classic movie (tho apparently not P L Traver’s original vision!) and again brought a positive message out for adults and children alike. Bravo, guys.

As a child who watched the original with his sister Annie, I always felt that the song “Feed the Birds” somehow captured the heart of that original story in a poignant, almost painful way. George Banks, and his opportunity to learn to cherish his family over his career. Similarly, I feel the new song “Where the Lost Things Go” does the same for Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. Whether it be the painful loss of the children’s mother, the agony of the loss of the share certificate that Michael and Jane hunt for, and the threat of the loss of the house.

Well maybe all those things

That you love so

Are waiting in the place

Where the lost things go.

The message of the song that Mary Poppins sings to the children is that nothing is lost without a trace. They may be out of place, but they are in a place where we will find them again.

Back in 2007, my family lost Annie, and she died way too young leaving her children behind. You can imagine the effect Mary Poppins’ new song had on me in the darkened cinema. As I think about it, this is a gentle song that fiercely faces reality. Life involves loss. It is the nature of life, it is the experience of every person at every time. It’s a universal experience. And yes – we dwell on those things or those places or those people who seem lost to us now. But – they only seem to be lost.

Memories you’ve shed

Gone for good you feared

They’re all around you still

Though they’ve disappeared…

Nothing’s gone forever

Only out of place.

This is a song of hope for all of us. How beautiful it was when the children sang the song back to their hurting and broken father. It’s a lovely sentiment. But is there any reality to it for real life? Outside of the confines of the Mary Poppins fictional world…in our all too real lives…does this song work still? When we’ve lost people, jobs, status and position… When we face the insecurity of Brexit. Does the song still work? Do our lost loved ones only live in our hearts as a cherished memory? Is security still possible for us in the midst of uncertainty? Listen to the final verse.

So maybe now the dish

And my best spoon

Are playing hide and seek

Just behind the moon

Waiting there until

It’s time to show

Spring is like that now

Far beneath the snow

Hiding in the place

Where the lost things go

 

As I listened to this, it reminded me of something. There’s a phrase, an idiom, a refrain that is repeated throughout the Old Testament…about those who die being gathered to their people.

“Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 35:29)

“All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation …” (Judges 2:10)

And the message of the New Testament takes this on further. Jesus himself teaches that “My father’s house has many rooms … I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2)

The message of Christianity is not just that God is preparing a place where he longs for the lost people to go. But rather, there is a place waiting for them that they will recognise as their home. What’s more…those who we have lost…are waiting to welcome us when we die.

Believe me – I know the pain that results from the realization that I’m never again going to enjoy my little sister’s company, watch her selfless life choices, and listen to her encouraging voice. That was a tough truth to grapple with. And – I expect I’ll experience this challenge again when I lose future loved ones. Yet – in the midst of this challenge – there’s a real hope that the Bible, and “Where the Lost Things Go” reminds me of.

So maybe now the dish

And my best spoon

Are playing hide and seek

The day is coming when we will find each other again. I recommend playing this game as someone who knows and loves the Jesus who is preparing this home for us…because there’s no guarantee we will experience that home otherwise. But why would anyone reject such a wonderful offer? That meets the longing in all of us…brought out by Mary Poppins…to be reunited with everyone we lose? Jesus wants it for each of us.